Ethical will: Education

Internal obstacles to writing this entry

I’ve been thinking of writing an ethical will entry on education for some time now, but it’s been challenging for me to begin. For me, there are three obstacles:

  1. The strong personal association I draw between Judaism and placing a high value on education, which I worry may come across as off-putting to some;
  2. Not relating to many of the traditional Jewish source texts on education;
  3. My personal experiences with [higher] education, which did not [ultimately] serve me well, as a result of my poor decision-making.

Fortuitously, I recently came across a short talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l on Animalizard’s blog, which gave me the language I needed to overcome that first internal barrier, and this, in turn, gave me the motivation to push through the others.


Jews and education

This is the part that makes me uncomfortable to share, but it will, in part, showing you where I am coming from.

Jews, as a religious group, really, really, really prioritize education, and this has been true throughout our history (as far as I know). The ‘People of the Book’ have long valued literacy. It feels haughty to me to make mention of this, but it’s simply true, even in the modern day. In 2016, the Pew Research Center published its study on ‘Religion and Education Around the World’, which found that:

When measured by years of formal schooling, Jews have the highest average educational attainment, while Muslims and Hindus have the lowest. Christians have the second highest average years of schooling, followed by religiously unaffiliated adults and then Buddhists.

Pew Research Center, 2016

This cultural emphasis on education played a major part in my upbringing. My father and mother were both highly educated, well read and sophisticated, as was most of our extended family on either side. I grew up fully expecting that college and graduate school awaited me after high school. In my mind, it was only a matter of deciding whether to be a doctor, lawyer, professor or engineer.


A joke to lighten [the/my] mood

This reminds me of a classic Jewish joke, which some of you may be already familiar with:

The First Jewish President

The first Jewish president calls up his mother and invites her over for Passover. Characteristically, his mother immediately begins complaining.

“Oy, I’ll need to book a flight and it’s going to cost so much – it is just too much of a bother.”
Her son counters, “Mom! I’m the President! I’ll hire a private jet for you!”
“Oy, I’ll need to catch a taxi and carry my luggage. It’s just too much!”
“Mom! I’m the President! I’ll pick you up in my limo! Then my guards will carry your luggage for you!”
“Oy, I’ll need to book a hotel.”
“Mom! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m the President! You can stay at the White House!”
“Okay, fine,” she finally acquiesces.

Two minutes later her friend Sophie calls.
“So, Miriam, what’s new?”
“Oy, I’m going to my son for Passover.”
“Who, the doctor?”
“No, the other one.”


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l on being Jewish

An important clarification

I am a Jew, not because I believe that Judaism contains all there is of the human story. I admire other traditions and their contributions to the world… Nor is it because I think that Jews are better than others, more intelligent, creative, generous, or successful…

These words can be heard spoken by Rabbi Sacks zt”l in the video below.

‘Why I am a Jew’ by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l

Education as a sacred task

Among the many reasons (and I do suggest that you watch the video in its entirety) that Rabbi Sacks zt”l gives for his being Jewish is this one, which resonates deeply with me:

Jews, though they lacked all else, never ceased to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth…

It’s not a matter of my people being better than another. It’s a matter, as Rabbi Sacks zt”l aptly puts it, of that which is uniquely my people’s:

I admire other civilizations and traditions; I believe each has brought something special into the world… but this is ours.


Jewish source texts

Some that don’t work for me…

As you may imagine, there are a lot of ancient Jewish sources that deal with education, particularly in relation to a father educating his son, and with a particular emphasis on discipline and ‘not sparing the rod’. For example, Proverb 13:24:

חוֹשֵׂךְ שִׁבְטוֹ, שׂוֹנֵא בְנוֹ; וְאֹהֲבוֹ, שִׁחֲרוֹ מוּסָר. He who spares the rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him early.

Color me modern, but I would never lift a hand against any child of mine; and beyond that, I fundamentally reject the Bible’s expectations of a child, as stated quite plainly in Proverbs 29:15:

שֵׁבֶט וְתוֹכַחַת, יִתֵּן חָכְמָה; וְנַעַר מְשֻׁלָּח, מֵבִישׁ אִמּוֹ. The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself causes his mother shame.

Seriously?

I cite these texts because pretending that they do not exist would be dishonest, as I want to ground my ‘ethical will’ in my tradition. However, the thrust of the approach above to education leaves me feeling cold, for such biblical sources are simply ancient and in no way reflect my thinking or perceptions. While I must, of course, allow for cultural and other historical developments, I nonetheless find this attitude towards pedagogy entirely unrelatable.

There are, of course, other Jewish texts on education, many of which focus on the study of particular religious texts and the performance of particular religious rituals at particular ages, but these are not so relevant to my thoughts on education in general.

… and some that do

I have already written my ‘ethical will’ entry on the importance of raising individuals, which includes a traditional Jewish text on pedagogy, also from the Book of Proverbs (22:6), which strongly speaks to me:

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ Educate a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.

Now, while every child has their individual strengths and weaknesses, the Jewish sages thought it necessary to suggest four models of learners. The following source comes to us from a text known as the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (5:15), which is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’:

אַרְבַּע מִדּוֹת בְּיוֹשְׁבִים לִפְנֵי חֲכָמִים: סְפוֹג, וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, מְשַׁמֶּֽרֶת, וְנָפָה. סְפוֹג, שֶׁהוּא סוֹפֵג אֶת הַכֹּל. וּמַשְׁפֵּךְ, שֶׁמַּכְנִיס בְּזוֹ וּמוֹצִיא בְזוֹ. מְשַׁמֶּֽרֶת, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַיַּֽיִן וְקוֹלֶֽטֶת אֶת הַשְּׁמָרִים. וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּֽמַח וְקוֹלֶֽטֶת אֶת הַסּֽוֹלֶת: There are four types among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve lets out the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.

What I particularly appreciate about this 2nd source is that it feels to me like the early stages (200 CE) of an attempt to develop an inclusive pedagogic program that takes different learning styles into account. One may dismiss the categories as overly simplistic, perhaps, but the rabbis’ articulation of their collective concern and consideration is important.

While the Jewish tradition’s sources on education are rather a mixed bag, I find these last two very gratifying and relatable.


The sponge

In 7th grade I had an especially fantastic English teacher (Mrs. Stephanie Margolies) who metaphorically “gifted” each of her students an object from her classroom at the end of the year and explained the symbolism behind each of her personal “gifts” to us. She bequeathed upon me the large sponge that she used for washing the blackboard because, as she explained, I was endlessly asking questions during class.

The text above from the ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ has made me think about being a sponge in another way that I also find myself relating to. It’s the idea that the sponge absorbs everything – both good and bad – with no filter. Everything goes in and gets mixed around with everything else.

This trait is something that I find myself continuing to struggle with – I’m constantly absorbing bits of information from everywhere and everyone, and I’m always curious about everything at once, seeking clarification of even the most minor details. It makes focusing on any one thing for an extended period of time very difficult for me, and when I manage to focus on something, I get very annoyed with anyone or anything that distracts me (although I have gotten much better at not expressing my frustration).

I get bored of doing one thing for too long because everything else around me is interesting all the time. In fact, I have subconsciously taught myself to entirely avoid exploring certain things because I would never get anything done otherwise. This is essentially a defense mechanism for me – the choice to ignore certain aspects of the world entirely.

It was a terrible mistake for me to pursue my undergraduate degree in engineering because I was never interested in it; the world around me was much more fascinating. My graduate degree in public policy was a step in the right direction because it broadened my understanding and appreciation of how my society operated, but ending up behind a desk at the U.S. Department of Energy sent me towards depression – it was not long before I became bored out of my mind.

Even now, I’m not sure what choices I should have made as a young man, in terms of my higher education, but taking off some time before entering college would have been a wise move for me. I think that it’s not only on our parents to treat us as individuals, but also on us to actively seek to better understand ourselves. Education remains, unquestionably, a top priority for me; but it must not be embarked upon merely for the sake of diplomas and credentials, as I did.

HaShem, or: Elohim

She deserves a poem true 
Her faithfulness confuses
me
    Just yesterday after pre-
school
I'd picked her 
up 
    -my pup- 
    she spoke with such indignity
about a friend -a six-year-
old- who wrote God's name 
and 
    "put an 'X'"
"Do you mean she crossed it out?"
"Yes and said her fam-
ily
    does not believe, nor she
    but that's not why she doesn't"
"Which name did she 
write? was it 'HaShem'?" "No
    she crossed out 'Elohim'
    and showed her friends"
"So what do you think about that?"
"How can she-
    we must respect-
    our teachers and our parents 
are
    in charge
but God is the most 
powerful he's in charge 
    of every-
thing"
Why is my child 
    so...
Where does she get...
"Yes, that is what some 
    people 
think" "Well 
our teacher says that we should 
believe in God" At a 
    state-secular 
pre-
school! And -then- today 
before pre-
school: "If God can speak to any-
    one, that means He can speak
    all languages!"
"Well, yes..."
Perhaps this is a poem, 
for-
    perhaps it's faith 
that's
    po-
  et-
  ry-

Today, for d’Verse’s “Open Link Night”, I’d like to share a poem that I wrote last June, a couple of months after creating this blog.

I decided to share this poem because recently I’ve been writing a lot about my daughter on this blog. She is now 6-years-old. When this was written, she was 5⅓-years-old… and to this day, she maintains her fascination with the concept of God and insists that she believes everything that is written in the Torah. Suffice it to say that she doesn’t get such ideas from me.

Six-year-old burgeoning poet

A couple of days ago, you provided me with an outpouring of wonderful advice, as to how I might nurture and develop my six-year-old daughter’s poetry talents. Truly, the many suggestions for approaches, games, techniques… were simply amazing. Thank you so very much.

By coincidence, the very following day my six-year-old told me that she wanted to write a free verse poem with me (“a poem that doesn’t rhyme,” she said). I explained to her that poetry doesn’t have to follow the rules of grammar and that lines can break wherever the poet so choses. Also, I emphasized that poetry is intended to express feelings ~ that the most important thing is to feel the words.

Shortly after completing our first collaborative free verse poem (which she deliberately wrote in a silly way), she asked me if she could try to construct a poem with me online on MagneticPoetry, as she had seen me do several times myself. To be honest, I was somewhat hesitant about this because I thought that the aspect of playing with the magnets would distract her from attempting to construct a poem, but many of you (and my mother) had suggested than I just let her play and learn by doing… so I agreed.

Below are our latest pieces, both free verse:


Two poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The car found a cat
The bar found
a bat
The bat was hanging
The cat was
banging
The bat said “can you stop that?”
The cat said
as he walked
on the bar to the car, “I
don’t want to!”
“Why?
Are you not going to stop that?”
Atop the car, beside
the bar, the cat
stared at the bat
from afar
He said to the bat, “I do not want to
because I like it.”
He banged on the bar; it
made the bat cry.
“I am so 
sorry!”
For the cat was now
worried about 
what he did.
The 
bat 
said, 
“Why 
did 
you 
do
that?”
The cat sat
then lay flat
on a mat
near the bat;
put on his hat
and said to the bat,
“Sometimes
it’s hard to control
myself, you see.”
The bat
said, “Yes
I do see.”

NOTES:

I was not the one who began this poem ~ she deliberately wrote something silly about a car finding a cat because she liked the concept and because the two words sound similar. Following her lead, I wrote: “The bar found a bat.” After all, fair is fair – am I right? 😉

Liorah and I took turns with this piece, and upon writing the ending, she asked me, “Do you like my ending?” I smiled. “Very much,” I said and hugged her.

2.

Liorah’s first Magnetic Poem (Feb. 16, 2021)
bluest sky the girl sees
spring goddess in diamond red
gown let storm beauty soar
sweeter and music mist spray
on those forest lake winds

NOTES:

I had to teach her about the magnets with word endings like ‘est’, ‘s’, and ‘er’, as well as how to manipulate the mouse to drag the virtual magnets to the left side of the screen.

Also, when it was my turn to add some words to the poem, she became a bit impatient as I scrolled through all of the available words looking for some that spoke to me. I had to explain to her that this is how I personally write Magnetic Poetry, but she remained rather irked with me. I guess I’m just an old fuddy duddy.

Teaching poetry to children? Help!

Despite have been born in and growing up in Israel, my six-year-old speaks, reads, and writes English better than she does Hebrew. In fact, I think she also writes and reads (and maybe speaks) better Russian than Hebrew, thanks to her mother’s efforts.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned in passing, our little girl is well aware that I write poems for this blog of mine; and she’s taken to rhyming words all day long herself. Sometimes she’ll unintentionally make off-rhymes, pause thoughtfully, sound them out to herself aloud, and then say, “well, that’s just an off-rhyme, but we could still use it in a poem.”

Now, I have done all sorts of fun writing exercises with her in English, and my mother in America has also taken to writing snippets of short stories back-and-forth with her on Facebook Messenger. Her grammar and punctuation aren’t perfect, but she’s learning very quickly. Just recently, for example, she asked me to show her how to write lowercase letters by hand because she knows that her penmanship needs work too.

Several days ago, out of the blue, she asked to write some poems with me on my computer (we used Microsoft Word) and was very intent about having me share them on my blog. She even asked me, “So what tags are you going to assign them? When will you decide? When will other people read them?”

Our three poems are below, in case you’re curious; but I am actually drafting this blog post primarily because I want your feedback: how do I teach her to write poetry?

Here’s where she’s at right now:

  • As I mentioned above, she is very comfortable with rhyme
    • For example, for one of the poems below, she suggested the word ‘coffee’ instead of ‘tea’ because she realized that the second syllable of ‘coffee’ rhymes with ‘tea’, and we had already used the word ‘tea’ in the previous poem.
  • She is less comfortable with rhythm and counting syllables per line, although I tried demonstrating those concepts to her while we were writing the short poems below. This is something that I don’t quite know how to get across to her.
    • I tried explaining these concepts by counting the syllables aloud with her and tapping my fingers on the table, while saying, “bum, bum, bum-bum, bum.”
    • Still, she tends to write lines of inconsistent lengths and rhythms if left to her own devices, as long as they include (and especially end with) rhyming words.
  • Also, I am having difficulty with teaching her about creative imagery and devices like alliteration, assonance, etc. She’s very bright so when I manage to explain things well, she usually gets them, but it’s not so easy for me to convert and upload my thoughts into her child brain.
    • To her credit, she was able to understand what I meant by ‘metaphor’ when I explained my last nature haiku to her and pointed out that the language of the poem was making a comparison between plants and poetry with its use of the word ‘seeding’.
  • Lastly, since she’s so focused on rhyming, she doesn’t quite understand how to write non-rhyming poetry. She has finally accepted that such a concept exists, but it remains fairly hard for her to grasp. How would she go about writing a non-rhyming poem, she wonders?

Three poems, a collaboration

by David (41) and Liorah (6)

1.

The dog found a log 
that fell from a tree 

She sat on the log, 
happy as can be 

Then there was a fog 
‘twas too hard to see 

She sobbed in the fog, 
wishing she could flee 

She got off the log, 
squinting hopefully 

Wind blew away the fog; 
dog whistled happily

2.

Then there was a squirrel, 
sipping a cup of tea 

Squirrel saw a girl 
swimming in the sea 

Then the waters whirled 
very dangerously 

Quickly, ran the squirrel, 
reaching desperately 

Stretched out her hand, 
poor girl, begging – please save me! 

They ate ice cream swirls 
once he pulled her free

3.

The cat found a hat 
and thought, “This is for me!” 

Then came out a bat 
and offered her coffee 

On her head she sat 
stirring daintily 

Then came out a rat 
Sniffing greedily 

They said, “GET AWAY, RAT!” 
and he cried tearfully 

When they noticed that, 
they felt so, so sorry!

The best hamburger of my lifetime

Hamburgers with Papa

One of my fondest recollections of Papa is his love of unhealthy food. This was one of the perks of having Papa pick me up from various afterschool activities and friends’ houses – one could never know if he might be in the mood for hamburgers. Come to think of it, Papa was much like Winnie the Pooh in this regard, sometimes struck by an entirely unexpected ‘rumbly in his tumbly’.

We certainly did not eat at McDonalds regularly or often; but we had hamburgers there often enough for me to remember this small pleasure; and it was also rare enough for me to develop a special appreciation for it.


Hamburgers & keeping kosher

As a college student, I gradually became religiously observant and eventually stopped eating non-kosher meat. Now, most Jews do not keep kosher, but for those of us who accept this dietary restriction upon ourselves, kosher hamburgers are quite a treat; and kosher hamburgers are abundant in Israel, especially in cities with large religious populations like Jerusalem.

I must add that Jerusalem’s burger joints range widely in quality. We have McDonalds and several other chains, but we also have very high end burger restaurants and everything in between. Even the midrange burger places have better quality patties than McDonalds – and the prices, of course, reflect this.

By the way, burger joints aside, the endless availability of kosher food is one of the reasons that living in Israel is appealing to Jewish people who keep kosher. Living a traditionally religious Jewish life is simply easiest in Israel for many practical reasons; perhaps this too would be worth writing about…


My Babushka’s advice to me

My Babushka (my Mama’s mother) and I would speak by phone almost every single day in the final years of her life before she died nearly three months after my Papa, and, as you might imagine, one of our favorite subjects of conversation was my daughter. Babushka’s love for our baby girl was not theoretical – she deeply adored her and always looked forward to our family visits when her great-granddaughter would climb up onto her couch to give her a kiss.

Our daughter is our first child and so I’ve been discovering child development by observing her as she grows up. Therefore, I’ve never quite known what to expect at any given age, nor what is considered ‘normal’; but my Babushka, who raised three daughters and then some of her granddaughters, had a very good sense of what behaviors and milestones were age appropriate for little children.

Often, we would discuss what foods our child was eating, and I loved to joke with Babushka about my “dream” of going out for burgers with my daughter. Of course, I was making this joke back when she was only three-years-old, which was clearly absurd, and Babushka thought the notion very amusing. “You’ll have to wait until she’s five-years-old for that,” she would tell me.


Five… no… Six-years-old

Regardless of her age, it has always been difficult to convince our daughter to eat any foods beyond the ones she is already familiar with and fond of. In fact, the older she gets, the more this seems to be a losing battle; and there are even some foods she once enjoyed, which she is no longer willing to put in her mouth. We have learned the hard way not to push anything new on her, and we wait for those rare moments when she asks to try something new of her own volition.

Of course, telling her that I like hamburgers is entirely reasonable, right? I’m not suggesting that she should, God forbid, try them; I’m just saying that they’re amazing. So over time, I have adopted the strategy of dripping water upon the rock, as suggested to me by the Bible (Job 14:19):

אֲבָנִים, שָׁחֲקוּ מַיִם The waters wear the stones

Finally, several months ago, she told me that she’d eaten a hamburger at preschool and she’d liked it! I tried hard to contain myself, and I may have even succeeded. “Well,” I said very, very casually, “if you’d like to get a hamburger with me some time, just let me know.” She responded affirmatively, and let me know that she only likes plain hamburgers – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing. “Sure, sure, no problem. Whatever you’d like,” I responded hopefully. Then, wisely, I dropped the subject entirely.


Thank you, COVID-19

I will forever be thankful to the global pandemic for the event that took place on Thursday, February 4th, 2021, the week before our daughter officially turned six-years-old.

Here in Israel, we have been in lock-down, on-and-off, for months. Honestly, I’ve lost track of time spent at home because the days and weeks and months all blur together in my memory, as I assume they do for our daughter as well. She’s returned to preschool several times, only to return back home for another month or more. Of course, she’d be the first to tell you that she prefers being at home with us, but she does still miss her friends from preschool.

Anyway, there are only several dishes that she requests for lunch at home, and, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t push our luck in trying to recommend new foods to her because that always backfires. Now, under normal circumstances, it’s reasonable for a child to have a very limited amount of lunch options at home because under normal circumstances a child eats lunch at preschool on most days… but last week, finally, the endless sameness of her lock-down era home lunches finally got to her, and she unexpectedly turned to me and said, “Maybe we could get hamburgers this week. But remember – I just want a plain hamburger – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing.”


And so it was ~

And so, last Thursday, February 4th, 2021, my daughter and I ordered hamburgers from the local joint and brought them home for ourselves (eating out is illegal during the lock-down). She had a plain 80g burger, and I had the standard 250g patty with all of the toppings. And the best part of the whole experience is how much she loved her hamburger!

I literally cannot recall the last time that I’d heard her expressing so much enthusiasm and appreciation for a particular meal – the entire time that she was eating her little hamburger, she kept on repeating, “Wow, I really, really like this. It’s delicious!” and smacking her lips. I think, hands down, it was the most enjoyable meal that I can ever recall having, and, quite certainly, it was the most delicious hamburger of my entire lifetime.

I’m already looking forward to the next one! 🍔

Seedling, or: Watering can

My first tanka

Sprouting eagerly;
Stretching, absorbing learning,
Seedling roots search deep
~
Humble grey watering can;
Though I get refilled daily

EIF Poetry Challenge #14: Tanka

The above poem is my entry for Ingrid’s most recent poetry challenge. She provides a very thorough explanation of tanka poems for those who are curious to know more. But ~

In short:

  • The first three lines (following the haiku format) are the ‘upper poem’ (kami-no-ku) and the final two lines are the ‘lower poem’ (shimo-no-ku);
  • To write tanka in English, we normally divide the poem into five lines with the following syllable pattern: 5/7/5/7/7.

Two teeth, or: A reminder

My 6-year-old lost two teeth in one day;
and, as always, she had something to say.
To her father the blogger,
she said: Might this not augur
a sweet poem about me- sans cliché?

Dedicated with love to my precious little daughter, who asked me to write a poem on the occasion of her losing two teeth last Friday and then repeated her request to me again several days later (an hour ago).